Douglas Questions Seed Legislation

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas is worried that a bill that sets new liability standards for genetically modified seeds could lead to lawsuits between farmers. The bill passed the Senate earlier this week. State Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr wants Douglas to veto the legislation if it passes the House as well.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Host) The legislation on genetically altered seeds is called the Farmer Protection Act. That’s because it’s designed to make the seed companies, not farmers, legally liable if the genetically altered products cross-pollinate a neighbor’s crops. Organic farmers want the bill because they worry that they could lose their markets, if their crops are contaminated by the gene-altered versions.

But Governor Douglas and his Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr are skeptical. Douglas questions the need for the legislation. And he says it could lead to lawsuits between farmers.

(Douglas)”We’ve heard a number of issues raised. First of all, encouraging more litigation through the strict liability provisions in the bill. Farmers have decided in many cases that despite the additional cost of genetically engineered seeds, they’re important for their profitability and can serve their business plan and farming operations well. There are some real advantages to them.”

(Dillon) Agriculture Secretary Kerr tried unsuccessfully to change the bill in the Senate.
He says if it passes, seed companies will no longer sell the genetically altered products in Vermont. And he says the bill will backfire, because farmers could be exposed to more lawsuits.

(Kerr)”When the lawsuit is filed against the big evil company, the big evil company is going to say Steve abrogated his contract with us, because we clearly marked our package ‘Not for sale’ or ‘Use in Vermont.’ That means I’m liable, not the company. Well, I’ve had a number of farmers ask me if this happens, what do I do? I say, first call your lawyer. You’re going to make them some money. I say secondly, think real hard about how much risk you want to take. That’s why I think this is a backdoor attempt to in effect, ban these products in Vermont. And it may be a very clever and very effective way to do it.”

(Dillon) The bill is now before the House Agriculture Committee, where Burlington Progressive David Zuckerman is chairman. Zuckerman has introduced similar legislation in the House. He doesn’t accept the administration’s argument.

(Zuckerman)” I don’t think it will lead to more litigation, or less. What it will do however is put the responsibility for the product on the manufacturer of the product. Considering the fact that they own, and when they lease it to farmers to use it, they say ‘That is our property you cannot save it.’ Well then they are responsible for that product, and that’s what this bill does.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas has also formed a new dairy industry task force to work on ways to stabilize milk prices and create new markets for farmers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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